The Blue State Conservative

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An Objective Assessment of CNN’s ‘United Shades of America’

W. Kamau Bell is a TV journalist who has a show on CNN, an Original Series, that airs Sunday evenings at 10:00 PM ET entitled United Shades of America.


Full disclosure:  I randomly check TV news on a couple channels and caught a glimpse of a teaser for Bell’s program and I recognized a friend, a woman who is a combat veteran and West Point grad, Mary Tobin.  Having someone I know and respect on a top TV show was worth tuning in and taping.  I watched it twice.

By my count Bell had seven distinct segments with a central theme on the US military (the show aired the day before Memorial Day).


Bell has a first-rate production team.  Edits are sharp, respectful, thorough, and match the narrative.  I did not have to keep up.  It was well paced.  Granted, I do not always agree with his premises and conclusions, but it is his show.  He is a kind interviewer, listens well, and does not hog the camera.  He appears happy in his work and when I put some of my differences aside, I did learn much and there was much to applaud.


The first segment was on race and had two West Point grads, Mary as one and a retired two-star general as the other.  Both were very impressive and did not complain or carp and consistently emphasized hope.  To quote Mary, “(the) majority join the military because of what they believe this country to be, and the majority of African-Americans join because of what they hope this country to be.”  Powerful stuff, indeed, and cannot be refuted… but when Bell segued to the next piece, he implied that people join the military for benefits because they are poor.  A great moment wasted.


The second segment was fascinating and begged more dialogue.  My service was only for five years (deployed but never down-range, so to speak) and there were elements of the military internal legal system I was not aware of.  The discussion centered on two former JAG officers who see an unnecessary discriminatory gap in legal protections for the junior enlisted ranks, revolving around the Feres Doctrine which states that although a serviceman can make a claim for redress, he cannot sue the military, a commander, or any service provided no matter how illegal, unethical, or downright shoddy.


The legal parley was complicated and I suggest you search for the Feres Doctrine and attempts to provide relief.


The third segment was about the evolution of gay service members, the clear abuses in the past, and featured a trans woman-to-man that was not identified as such until well into the segment.  Gay people have always been a part of the nation in all capacities and adults can act as they wish and serve honorably and with distinction.  If I have a problem at all, it’s that the transgender piece did not emphasize that the service comes first, and personal identification issues must start there.


One flag, one uniform, one mission.  If there was a draft, then an argument could be made about accommodation by necessity, but that is not the case when someone volunteers.  I do not agree that it is about discipline and unit cohesion.  It’s about putting yourself second.


The fourth segment annoyed the hell out of me.  A former junior officer who identified as everything except intergalactic traveler went on a political diatribe on the military industrial complex, and Bell threw in a reference to Eisenhower’s great farewell speech of January 1961.  Most thinking people agree with Ike’s assertion from 60 years ago, and there is plenty to debate, but not from inside the tent.  The woman featured may have a strong political career in an age of the cancer of identity politics, and even though some of the stats provided were compelling (469 of 535 members of Congress receive PAC money from defense contractors), there was no balance: the cash isn’t sunk into the ocean. That money fuels industries that create jobs, lots of them, inspires innovation by necessity, and makes the USA the strongest and safest country in the world where people risk their lives to come here for the American dream.


Another thing that galled me.  At one point the woman-of-many-identities said she was accused by commanders in a war theater of “going native,” a euphemism for thinking of the civilian in-country population, first.  Here Bell said quickly off-screen that “going native” was “racist” for meaning she cares.  Nonsense, Mr. Bell.  When any of us goes native we lose sight of the mission, the goal.  It was a throw away line on Bell’s part but it was a jarring and unnecessary leap of logic.


Segment five was interesting and frustrating.  A combat photographer (not an easy task, with a very high casualty rate) with admitted PTSD ran the gamut of “Lies that got us into Iraq” to “We created ISIS” to “We abused the Kurds” to “We need to kill ISIS.”  It was a political rant, but he had some standing to make it.  His own footage was graphic and gut wrenching and worthy of the nightly news, but, alas, no network shows that carnage.  He made many salient points that require future consideration, like better field trauma medical training.


But he kept hammering the canard that successive administrations lied.  Colin Powell is not a liar, dammit.  At the time, the intelligence was both valid and flawed.  Ah, the whole segment was too political.


Bell made a point that I know people should understand.  PTSD is not just a combat trauma.  Many things can grip an individual and trigger a lack of response to normal events, and car accidents are the majority of all PTSD situations.


The sixth segment was horrifying.  Two sailors, one male and one female, talked about their trauma with sexual abuse and rape, how it dehumanized them, how it affected their self-worth and service, and how the military let the instigators/attackers off while the interviewees, the victims, were discharged.

Man, sometimes the “club” takes care of the wrong team members.  It was a harrowing segment.  Bell handled it with great empathy.  One observation as an aside:  in reviewing sexual assault data on screen, the source document was Al Jazeera, which I found odd.  Is that the entity we trust for this vital information, which should be the bedrock on which the US military can build a better internal criminal justice system?  There is a push for these assault cases to be taken away from commanders and given to civilians, and if that happens the “club” did it to themselves.


The last segment was about veterans who are deported.  One would assume, and Bell stated so, that a serviceman or servicewoman who was not a citizen and honorably completes a term of service would be granted citizenship. I agree.


But I think Bell’s team picked the wrong guy.  The story profiled a vet who came to the US as a child, undocumented, settled in Phoenix and joined the Navy.

This is where the words service and sentence became intertwined.  The sailor was found guilty of, in his words, a “non-violent cannabis” crime and served a 37-month federal sentence.  The devil is always in the details.  That’s a stiff sentence for a non-violent offense, and my guess is that it was a doozie.  If he was in uniform for any piece of that caper he’s lucky he only got deported.  He wore a mask throughout the interview, unnecessarily.   But the sentiment is strong:  serve honorably and get your papers.


A couple quick notes.


Kamau Bell has an excellent show, even with the political posturing and frequent Trump bashing.  One photo was flashed several times of Trump sitting in the Oval Office surrounded by a couple dozen flag grade officers, all white males. And it was an eye-opener.  Can’t blame Trump for that, as the culture promotes its own and it does not appear to reflect the enlisted ranks.  That is sad.


At least three segments had service animals featured with the interviewee. Expect service animals to become more the norm in our national fabric.


Mary Tobin, the West Point grad in the first segment, is a natural in front of the camera.  She answered questions with strength and grace and good humor.  I would not be surprised if she pursued a future in television.


One happy prevailing theme:  every single one of these people profiled is proud of their service and they would join, again, even knowing the flaws inherent.  All are noble patriots, even the woman-of-many-identities.


Real military service, life-long service, is not for every person who takes the oath.  Milton wrote just under four hundred years ago, “He also serves who only stands and waits.”


Most of us did what was required.  Some fail terribly.  Some are brutalized by the leadership they are trained to trust.  Some have no business being in uniform.  Only 10% of enlisted do the 20 years required for retirement, and about 30% of the officers.  I have much respect for all who have dedicated the best years of their lives to the US military.


I would watch the United Shades of American again.  It’s promoted as a travel-comedy-documentary and isn’t funny at all.  But it can be enlightening.  I recommend it. 


By Kevin Horgan


Kevin Horgan is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative. He is an author, retired attorney, and Marine. His work can be found on his blog Our Culture Inchoate, and his books, including his most recent novel A Face on the Flag, are available at Amazon.

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